EYFS Best Practice in Schools - Go for it!

By Charlotte Goddard
Tuesday, February 1, 2022

At Manor Wood Primary School in Leeds, winner of Nursery World's Early Years in School Award 2021, nursery and Reception children come together in a space that shares resources and best practice. By Charlotte Goddard

Making an Ofsted inspector cry is probably not high up on the list of ‘things to do during an inspection’, but for Outstanding-rated Manor Wood Primary School in Leeds, it was actually a good sign. ‘Our early years area doesn’t look anything like a typical Reception class,’ says Hilary Murtagh, the school’s Foundation Stage leader. ‘When the Ofsted inspector came in, she was so stunned by it, she cried.’

Manor Wood’s Foundation Stage Unit brings together nursery and Reception children in one purpose-built space. ‘We decided to put the two together to share good practice,’ says Murtagh. The shared environment also allows the school to offer a wider range of resources. ‘If we were a separate nursery and Reception, we would have to replicate areas, so there would be sand in both and water in both, for example,’ she explains. ‘We wanted to be a bit more creative with what we offered.’

The school’s approach to early education is inspired by Reggio Emilia, the Italian city famed for its child-centred approach to pre-school education, based on the principles of respect, responsibility and community through exploration, discovery and play. Murtagh has visited the city twice – once with nine local teachers in 2010, when the eruption of the super-volcano in Iceland meant the group had to drive back across Europe in a fleet of cars, and again with another Manor Wood teacher in 2018. She used what she learned there to completely revamp Manor Wood’s approach to early education.


At the core of Manor Wood’s approach is a fundamental belief that children are competent, collaborative, powerful individuals who should be given the time and space to conduct their own investigations and research. There is an emphasis on enquiry-based learning, which follows the children’s interests, beginning with a question, problem or idea and involving children in planning and carrying out investigations, proposing explanations and solutions, and communicating their understanding of concepts in a variety of ways.

‘All the planning for the children in nursery and Reception comes from their interests,’ explains Murtagh. ‘There is no off-the-shelf curriculum for early years in this school. Of course, we have a number of boxes we have to tick – the Government expects us to do phonics – but everything else is based on staff being skilled enough to understand what the children need.’

The children take part in short- and long-term projects, which they work on throughout the academic year. ‘They work on projects that we’ve decided to offer them based on their interests and experiences,’ says Murtagh. ‘Generally we work with children on “lines of enquiry”, but then those “lines of enquiry” sometimes become projects, because the interest is so great. We always think it’s going be one thing, but it ends up as whatever the children want it to be, so it is completely different by the end of the year.’

Children come together weekly for project meetings, and have ‘family group meetings’ twice a day to share thoughts and theories and to plan their play and research. They confidently share their ideas with staff and each other, and the year culminates in a celebratory presentation so parents can share their journey (see box, below).

Practitioners can find this approach challenging. ‘Sometimes if staff have not thought of something themselves, and then have to present it ready for the children, they feel like they’re not doing what they should be doing – so training new staffers is a challenge,’ says Murtagh. ‘But when they start to understand, it’s just incredible.’

There is plenty of time built in for professional development, including two hours of CPD for the team every week, and visits to other provision.

‘Often everything will change when they come back – that’s how we know what we are putting into CPD is having an impact on our provision,’ says Deborah Kenny, Manor Wood head teacher.

Murtagh also offers training to staff from other schools, and was able to use income generated from this to fund her second trip to Reggio Emilia in 2018.


Manor Wood believes that the environment acts as the third teacher, alongside the child and the adult. ‘No place is too beautiful for children’ says Murtagh. ‘You can’t teach children to respect nature and their environment unless you care enough to make it beautiful.’

Indoors, carefully curated spaces are constantly evolving to reflect their interests. The emphasis is on natural resources, with very little plastic on display. Lighting is important – the 1960s-build has a lot of natural light, and twinkly fairy lights create a magical feel. The aim is to replicate a family atmosphere, with staff called by their first names and children sharing healthy meals together around beautifully set tables laid with cotton tablecloths and fresh flowers.

Children have individual learning journals, but the walls are also covered in Perspex, so comments about what they are doing and saying can be documented in real time, rather than creating a display after the event.

The outdoor environment is even more important, with emphasis placed on outdoor exploration. Inspiration for outdoor provision comes from Scandinavia’s Forest Schools. Children develop their physicality in the school’s large garden including woodland, a riverbed constructed by the children, and a polytunnel for growing vegetables. Children regularly cook on the campfire, collect wood for the fire, harvest the vegetables and reuse the charcoal from the fire in their artwork, all giving them a connection with nature. They also regularly visit woodland a short walk away from the school.

‘The outdoor area has been developed to replicate Hilary’s childhood,’ laughs Kenny, and Murtagh agrees. ‘The main thing about my childhood is adults didn’t watch us; we had a hierarchy of older children who looked after you,’ she says. ‘I think children suffer from adults watching everything they do and restricting it. Here the idea is they are safe and can be seen, but they also feel they are on their own, the older ones can look after the younger ones and make decisions.’

Watching children using real hammers to knock nails into pieces of wood might cause palpitations in some parents, but it is an important developmental experience, says Kenny. ‘Children can do things, and if you don’t let them take a bit of risk, they never learn,’ she says. ‘Children are very capable of using real tools – it is disrespectful to give a child who can use a hammer a plastic one or a toy one,’ agrees Murtagh.

An outdoor atelier and woodwork workshop, led by the school’s atelierista Victoria Lungu, encourages children to express themselves creatively. In the atelier, the children learn a number of artistic techniques which help them to express their thoughts and interests – they are able to experiment with mixed-media sculpting, painting, printing and fabric dying, and recently they enjoyed the process of making recycled paper.


Manor Wood serves a mixed demographic. ‘We are a microcosm of the city,’ says Kenny. ‘We have children who come to our school from quite hard-pressed areas, but also some middle-class groups.’ Around 65 per cent of pupils are from a Black or minority ethnic background, with 33 different languages spoken in the school.

As well as the nursery and Reception unit, the school runs an onsite children’s centre, which provides daycare for birth to three-year-olds and offers wraparound and holiday care. ‘Because we already had outstanding early years provision here, Hilary was able to work with the person who was opening the baby and two-year-old provision so that it all reflected what was already in place here,’ says Kenny. ‘So it has the same ethos, the same Reggio approach, the same amazing resources and environment based on natural objects.’


‘More and more children who come to the setting aged three have problems with speech and language – either the pronunciation of words, or they need a lot more time to process what you’re asking them to deal with,’ says Kenny. The biggest difficulty this year, however, has been around toileting. ‘We have found that incredibly tough – parents have been under immense pressure, they haven’t toilet trained their child and they really do expect us to do it, even in Reception, not just nursery,’ says Kenny.

The school is also facing an increase in the proportion of children with SEND. ‘We have a higher proportion of children with SEND than the national average,’ says Kenny. ‘It is really difficult in early years to get the funding you need to support the child from the day they arrive at school. Due to lockdown, health visitors haven’t been involved as they would have been in sourcing support and funding, so we’re having to start from scratch, and that’s been really tough.’

The team is passionate about high-quality early years education being available to all children, regardless of their socio-economic backgrounds and other barriers. ‘Children are competent and strong and capable, and they can do anything given the right opportunities and the right attitudes from the adults around them,’ says Murtagh. ‘We should all be professional marvellers. That’s what we’re there for, to see all the amazing things that children can do.’

Working with parents

In happier times, Manor Wood operated an open-door policy, with parents and carers actively welcomed into the setting. ‘When parents can come through the door and tell you their concerns, and see what their children are doing, then they trust you,’ says Deborah Kenny. ‘It has been very difficult with Covid over the last year and a half where we couldn’t do that.’

All children stay with the same key worker throughout the Foundation Stage and siblings are also placed with the same key worker if possible, to allow parents to build strong relationships. Home visits take place before children enter the setting and there is a welcome BBQ for the families of children who are moving into or joining Reception.

‘They have a tour of the setting with their key worker,’ says Kenny. ‘It’s a really nice way to get to know people and have a chat – if parents have any questions, they can ask, but it is not in a hall where everyone has to listen to every tiny little thing a parent wants to know about their individual child.’

Each family receives a canvas bag with information about the school, including its aims and ethos. When the children start school, the bag will be tie-dyed with the colour of their group and used to store their outdoor clothes.

Pre-Covid, the school held regular ‘Stay and…’ sessions, including ‘Stay and Strum’, ‘Stay and Sketch’ and ‘Stay and Sow Seeds.’ These sessions offer the children a chance to share their current interests with the grown-ups in their lives, strengthening the school’s relationships with parents and carers. ‘Book breakfasts’ allow children to make breakfast for their visiting grown-ups while sharing their favourite books.

Regular parent partnership meetings are held throughout the year to discuss the children’s progress, and families are encouraged to contribute notes, photographs and samples of work to the children’s learning journals.

The school year culminates in a grand event, which usually involves the children presenting their work to their grown-ups in a creative and exciting way, in a setting that makes them feel valued. ‘Often parents have to take time off work to come to anything,’ says Hilary Murtagh. ‘We try to make sure if we are doing anything that involves the parents that it is high quality enough to justify them taking time off.’

The team has hired theatres, cinemas, university lecture theatres and sound studios, but perhaps the most exciting project finale was a caving trip. Parents who were able joined the children in their adventure, and the others were given tickets to visit the site later.

Technology is playing an increasing role in parental communication, with regular Tweets keeping parents up to date with what the children are doing throughout the day. The pandemic has forced the team to adopt new technological platforms to communicate with parents and children, including Zoom and the Seesaw app, but this is proving to have long-term benefits. ‘We were trying to do workshops for parents throughout the day, but they are often difficult for working parents to access,’ says Kenny. ‘We have started to put them online, so they can access them whenever they like – so that is one of the things to come out of lockdown that has benefited families.’

Transition to Year 1

At Manor Wood, ‘transition’ is referred to as ‘continuity’, and a lot of work goes into making the journey from the Foundation Stage Unit (nursery and Reception) to Key Stage 1 as seamless as possible. The Foundation Stage team has worked closely with the Key Stage 1 team, bringing Year 1 closer to early years in ethos and approach. ‘The way Year 1 works has changed and is now much closer to how we work at the beginning of the year,’ says Hilary Murtagh. ‘There is a lot less sitting down, and that really helps our children to transition.’

‘The Year 1 space is the only other space in school that is not a classroom, it has a shared area in between two classrooms, with the whole space completely open, so the children are going from one open space in the Foundation Unit to another open space, before they start being hemmed into classrooms further up the school,’ explains Deborah Kenny. Year 1 has also recently revamped its outdoor area to bring it more in line with early years.

The ‘continuity’ process begins with combined visits to the woods, including Reception and Year 1 children and staff. ‘This starts early in the new year and we try to do it as regularly as possible,’ says Murtagh. ‘The woods are for everyone so it is a neutral space.’ The idea is that the children then spend time together in each other’s spaces. ‘It’s a really gradual move rather than something sudden and very different.’

The values and skills that are instilled in the children in the early years also help them with the move to Key Stage 1, says Murtagh. ‘The things we feel are important for children are resilience, a can-do attitude, and being able to work together,’ she says. ‘Those things really set them up well for Year 1, they have incredible self-belief. The Year 1 curriculum has a lot of formal things to learn, but the children believe in themselves so much, I don’t think most of them find it daunting.’

Manor Wood Primary School won Nursery World’s Early Years in School Award in 2021. The Nursery World Awards 2022 open for entries on 7 February. Visit https://www.nurseryworld.co.uk/awards


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